Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Sarah Palin whitewash

Let's get right to main point: there is nothing good, noble or productive about John McCain's decision to nominate Sarah Palin to serve as his vice-presidential running mate. There is nothing "exciting" or "transformative," "ground-breaking" or "forward-thinking" about McCain's decision. Palin is so unqualified on so many levels that I doubt even a Nobel-winning mathematician could model her "qualifications" in three-dimensional space or measure their distance from zero. Her nomination is not merely an insult to women; it is an insult to the very idea that politics is something that should be taken seriously. That a man who wants the most visible and arguably important job, a job, as he has reminded us over and over, that requires a serious, experienced leader to deal with a world that has never been more dangerous, would select someone who could have played, a long time ago, one of Maurice Minnefield's misguided love interests on Northern Exposure (the ever-cool Chris the DJ wouldn't have gotten near Palin; Maggie would have run her out of town) should scare the living hell out of anyone who claims to give a damn about the world around them. In particular, if you are a parent still in the child-rearing years, please think about what you will tell your daughter if you are one of those "pro-choice-but-will-vote-for-McCain" people. Make sure you tell her that her reproductive freedom isn't as important as, say, lower gas prices or a slightly lower tax burden. And tell your son -- maybe your daughter, too -- that you will have no hesitation sending him to fight a war that serves, in all likelihood, no strategic purpose, other than to underscore the president's determination to stand tough against imagined enemies. Remember, these "enemies" are still very much alive and well, thanks to "national security experts" like John McCain, who remain wedded to the belief that you can "defeat" a religious-political movement by overwhelming it with military might. Almost seven years after the now-forgotten "War on Terror" began and over five years since America launched the Iraq debacle, the United States is less secure, less respected and less able to marshall an argument against, oh, I don't know, countries like Russia that decide to invade a sovereign neighbor just to put the world on notice that it can and will use force if and when it wants to do so.

Make no mistake. John McCain is a terrible candidate, a man who has succeeded in politics by crafting an image that bears no relationship to his public record. McCain is a straight up-and-down-the-line right winger who, at least for a while, kept the religious lunatics at bay until he decided to make nice with them in order to shore up a key element of the Republican base. Listening to him rail against the "Washington establishment" of which he has been a member in good standing for almost 30 years would be comical if the stakes, as they are in this election, weren't so high. Listening to him ridicule his "friend" Barack Obama's experience and then selecting an unknown, unaccomplished nutcase like Sarah Palin -- calling her the greatest vice-presidential running mate ever -- would, in a sane nation, disqualify him from running for, much less holding, public office. Listening the right-wing sycophants in the corporate media shill for his terrible choice while continuing to raise doubts about Obama's experience, judgment and depth isn't ironic -- it's miles past the Looking Glass in Alice in Wonderland. Eight years after George Bush chose Dick Cheney as his running mate to reassure nervous Republicans that he valued having someone with the experience he did not at his side, McCain reverses course and selects an individual who, at best, is qualified to cut ribbons and secure the streets for bike races and July 4th parades in a small Alaska town, to lead the nation. After eight years of George Bush, is the world really ready for another empty-headed lightweight motivated some bizarre set of religious beliefs, assuming, of course, that those religious beliefs are consistent with a bellicose foreign policy, social extremism at home and indifference to economic hardship?

Yet . . . yet . . . yet . . . John McCain will and has gotten away with the choice of Palin that, had Barack Obama made it, would have unleashed a torrential wave of criticism -- and justifiably so -- about his judgment, his intelligence and his fitness to hold the nation's highest office. Imagine, for a second, that Obama had selected Larry Giammo, Heidi Davison or, before he was shot to death last January three days before becoming the first black mayor of Westlake, Lousiana, Gerald Washington, as his running mate . . .


"Is he serious?"


And those would be the polite responses to Obama's selection of three small-town mayors, all of whom have governed communities -- or, in Washington's case, would have -- (Rockville, Maryland; Athens, Georgia and Westlake, Louisiana) larger than Sarah Palin's Wasilla, Alaska. Yes, yes, indeed . . . Obama would have diversified his ticket by picking any of these three hypothetical candidates (a white male of Italian heritage; a white woman; and a black man born in the South who won his 80% white-town's vote by a nearly 2-1 margin). And until 10 minutes ago, I never heard of any of Giammo, Davison or Washington. I chose Rockville and Athens because I live near one and grew up 60 miles from another and know that each has a relatively small population. I found Washington by Googling "small town black mayors" and turned up Washington on the first hit). But he wouldn't have congratulated by Democratic partisans and he sure as hell wouldn't have had the Bill Kristols and David Brooks of the world cheering on his "exciting" choice. He would have been laughed off the presidential stage -- again, justifiably so.

But John McCain can make a choice like this, and Sarah Palin can parade herself and her 17 year-old pregnant, unmarried daughter onto the national stage as a political prop, and receive plaudits from Republican partisans and "Hey, let's not judge" comments from their journalistic apologists for one simple reason.

John McCain is white. Sarah Palin is white. Bristol Palin is white, as is, Levi Johnston, the father of her child. And being white, in 2008 as much as 1968, confers a powerful, unspoken privilege in American politics, as it does in all other facets of American life. White Americans, in my experience, often get defensive when talking about race and privilege by instinctively claiming that they are not racists. Maybe not, but that's not the point. Privilege is something that accrues by virtue of membership. Whether you bent the rules or acted badly to get there is secondary. You will still, as a white American, especially one of economic means and elevated social standing, have an advantage than other Americans do not. Personally, I find the "Is racism or sexism more endemic?" debate pointless and a waste of time. Both are toxic and still pervasive in America. But race will always trump sex as a disability in business, politics . . . pretty much everywhere with the possible exceptions of sports and entertainment. A friend pointed out earlier today that had the American public learned that Hillary Clinton had a four month-old Downs Syndrome baby and still decided to accept Barack Obama's offer to run with him -- forget running the presidency -- she would have been excorciated by the very same people defending Palin as a bad mother, ruthless cutthroat, selfish . . . you name it. And had the Clintons trotted out Chelsea Clinton as a pregnant 17 year-old with a self-described "redneck" as the father of her child in 1992 or even 1996, when Chelsea was 17, the response would have made a natural disaster like Katrina seem like a spring sun shower in comparison. Since I was using Obama as my frame of reference, I hadn't thought about how the Clintons, especially Hillary, would have fared. But my friend is right.

Again, not to start a "Can you top this?" dialogue, but, as bad as it would have gotten for the Clintons, that would have been nothing compared to the news that Michelle Obama was leaving her fifth child at home in the care of someone else so that she could campaign with her husband (that Michelle would have absorbed the brunt of criticism for her "choice" and not Barack does illustrate my friend's point on sexism). And is there anything that white Americans already "uncertain" over whether the nation is "ready" for a black president would have exchanged knowing eye-rolls and soft elbows over than yet another unwed, pregnant 17 year-old black girl who, unlike Bristol, probably didn't even know who the father was? The Obamas would not have been congratulated for their "choices," as Sarah Palin but shouldn't have but was, since she doesn't believe that women should have a "choice" when they get pregnant, even if that pregnancy is the result of faulty birth control, rape or incest. You break it, it's yours. The Obamas would not have been lauded by the religious crazies for acting consistently with their religious beliefs. Sometimes, I'm not sure why people acting consistently with their religious beliefs is always a good thing. The September 11th hijackers acted according to their religious belief, as did the Taliban, as did and do the Iraqi insurgents, as did and do millions of people from around the globe who have killed, destroyed and maimed in the name of a fairy tale.

No, Barack Obama, before he would have relinquished his nomination, as the Democratic "party elders" would have forced him to do, would have been asked to give another speech on the need for black Americans to behave more responsibility. He would say that he wasn't leaving the race because of the irresponsible choices his wife and daughter made. No, he would have said he was doing what any responsible parent should do, and that was to take a step back from his own ambition so that he could spend more time with his family. The Obamas are smart enough to know that black Americans have no room for error in their public or private lives. They know that Obama's confessed and rather minor illicit drug use in his early 20s is a much more serious matter to undecided Americans than John McCain's years of alcohol-driven irresponsible, immature behavior, which included ditching his first wife when she became a liability to his personal ambition. They know that black Americans cannot make errors as parents, as white Americans can, so they would have realized that his campaign was over as soon as news that Michelle was leaving her special-needs child behind and abandoning her irresponsible 17 year-old daughter, even though the Sarah Palins of the world can grace the covers of People and US magazines as a tough-as-nails mom who'll kick the living hell of anyone who dares to question her or her family. And I haven't even mentioned the most dangerous feature of her biography: that she is a former "hockey mom." As someone who has coached youth hockey for five going on six years, I can tell you there is huge difference between a "hockey mom" and a mom with a child who plays hockey. Advertising yourself as a psychotic with out-of-whack priorities should not be "life experience" that garners a single vote.

The election is about eight weeks away. Between now and then, you will hear a lot of commentary and analysis from "political experts," some of whom are "political professionals," some of whom are academics, some of whom are "journalists," and some of whom are former "political operatives," "consultants" and so on. They will talk quite a bit about this poll or that poll, about who is connecting with whom, about whether Soccer Moms have morphed into Security Moms, about whether the all-powerful, all-knowing "white working class" can get comfortable with Obama, about whether Hillary's Army will stay home or vote for McCain and whether some "October surprise" will lift McCain or Obama . . . and so on and so forth.

In the end, this election comes down to one thing. John McCain is white and Barack Obama is not. America should stop congratulating itself on its "historic" achievement of having a black presidential candidate over 140 years after the Civil War ended and 40 years after Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Instead, it should be asking itself why, after all this time, it continues to view the intelligence, capability and promise of our public officials through the lens of race, when all that should really matter is the content of their character and the power of their dreams.

1 comment:

Rob Kimball said...

Your point is well taken, but I would humbly propose that it may be a touch on the alarmist side.

Can our nation's (or the world's) emergence from the ugly mire of racism be seen as anything but a brutally long, slow, and painful process? And can a vibrant black American carrying nearly 50% in Presidential polling be seen as anything but positive step in this process? It's far from the end end, but it's still a step we should be proud of.

I wish we could achieve insta-enlightenment, but anyone who claims that big problems can be solved easily is probably selling something...